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The temples of My Son, built by the Kingdom of Champa.

The Ancient Kingdom of Champa: An Enduring Power that Lasted over 1500 years in Southern Vietnam


The Kingdom of Champa was located in mainland Southeast Asia, and occupies the area which is today southern Vietnam. Like a number of other early Southeast Asian cultures, the Kingdom of Champa is not very well-known in the Western world. Nevertheless, thanks to its economy, this kingdom was an important regional power which was largely based on maritime trade. Additionally, it was due to these trade connections that the Kingdom of Champa came into contact with other polities, and was influenced by their cultures.

Po Nagar: The Founder of Champa

According to Cham tradition, the founder of Champa was a goddess known as Po Nagar. Legend said that Po Nagar was abandoned as a baby in a forest near Nha Trang. She was discovered by a woodcutter whilst he was returning home in the evening. The previously childless woodcutter and his wife raised her as if she was their own daughter. One day, Po Nagar, now a young lady, brought home a special piece of sandalwood, which she took good care of and did not allow anyone to touch.

A day came when she informed her foster parents that she was commanded to go to the Chinese Emperor’s court, where she would marry the crown prince. Although her foster parents initially forbade her from undertaking this journey, they eventually relented.

Po Nagar Cham towers at the mouth of Cái River, Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Po Nagar Cham towers at the mouth of Cái River, Nha Trang, Vietnam. (Wikimedia Commons

Po Nagar went to the seacoast, threw her piece of sandalwood into the sea, and disappeared. The piece of sandalwood was borne northwards by the currents, and reached the Chinese coast, where it was found by a fisherman in a net. Realizing that this was an object of great value, the fisherman brought it immediately to the palace, where it was given to the Emperor’s son.

The prince wrapped the sandalwood in a silk cloth, and kept it near him in the palace. That night, the cloth started to move, and when the prince inspected it, Po Nagar emerged. The Chinese crown prince and Po Nagar were soon married and they lived happily for the first few weeks of their married life.

Life After The Wedding

One day, however, Po Nagar told her husband that she wanted to visit her foster parents, as she had promised to do so before leaving them. The prince, however, denied her request, as he did not want her to be away from him for even a single day. As there was nothing that Po Nagar could do to change her husband’s mind, she went to the seashore, threw her sandalwood into the water, and vanished.

The prince was furious, and equipped a fleet to sail south to look for Po Nagar. This angered the Jade Emperor, Ngoc Hoang, who turned the prince’s ship into stone as it entered the harbor of Nha Trang. As for Po Nagar, she remained in Vietnam doing good deeds for the rest of her life. When she died, she became revered by both the Cham and the Vietnamese as their patroness.

The towers of Po Nagar are located on a hill in Southern Vietnam.     

The towers of Po Nagar are located on a hill in Southern Vietnam. (Wikimedia Commons

Historical Origins of the Kingdom of Champa and Relations with China

By comparison, the historical source for the origins of the Kingdom of Champa can be found in Chinese sources. The first mention of Champa is said to date back to 192 AD. At this point of time, the Kingdom of Champa was known as Lin-Yi. It has been said that this new entity emerged in what is today central Vietnam (the region of Hue to be more exact), when a local official successfully led a revolt against Chinese authority in the area. In both the legendary and historical accounts, it seems that Champa had some connection with the Chinese to the north.

This relationship with the Chinese continued throughout the history of Champa. The end of Han Dynasty in 220 AD marked the collapsed of a unified China for several centuries, and during the 6th century AD, the Cham raided the northern part of Vietnam, as they perceived the Southern Chen Dynasty, which ruled that area, as weak.

The Cham were defeated, however, by the Chinese general Pham Tu. When the Tang Dynasty came to power during the 7th century AD, the Kingdom of Champa ceased their aggressions against their northern neighbors for about two centuries. Additionally, diplomatic missions were even sent by the Cham kings to China.

India’s Influence in Champa

Another power that played an important role in the history of Champa was India. It was this power to the west that contributed greatly to the culture of Cham society, as it was from India that Hinduism and Buddhism arrived on the shores of this kingdom.

This influence from India is visible in the art of the Chams. For instance, from the 4th century BC, Champa art often contained images of Hindu gods. However, it has been pointed out that these images had a unique Cham imprint that set it apart from its land of origin. For example, the Chams often depicted Shiva with a wide nose, thick lips, and a hint of a smile, all of which are a reflection of Cham, rather than Indian, culture.

India’s influence: Relief from Angkor (Wikimedia Commons

In addition to art, the influence of India can also be seen in the architecture of the Kingdom of Champa. This is perhaps most prominent in the My Son Sanctuary, a series of Hindu tower-temples located in Central Vietnam. These tower-temples were constructed over ten centuries, beginning in the 4th century AD, and were dedicated to various Hindu deities, including Vishnu, Krishna, and above all, Shiva - in the form of the Shiva lingam.       

This Cham head of Shiva was made of electrum around 800 AD.

This Cham head of Shiva was made of electrum around 800 AD. (Wikimedia Commons

The Fall of the Kingdom of Champa

The Kingdom of Champa eventually came to an end in the early 18th century AD. Yet, the last strong king of the Chams was Che Nbong Nga, who ruled from 1360 to 1390 and attacked his northern neighbor, the Dai Viet, aggressively. It was only upon the death of Che Nbong Nga that the Chams withdrew back to the south.

The successful Vietnamese counter-attack began in 1402 and was only halted when the Ming Dynasty expanded into their territory. In 1428, however, the Vietnamese were able to push the Chinese back, and maintained good relations with the Cham. When the king of Champa died in 1441, the kingdom was on the brink of civil war, and the Vietnamese invaded. After 30 years, the majority of Cham territory was occupied by the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, a small Cham state still existed in the far south, and it survived until 1720. The end of this small state saw with it the fall of a great kingdom that lasted over 1500 years.

Featured image: The temples of My Son, built by the Kingdom of Champa. (Wikimedia Commons).

By: Ḏḥwty


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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